China-backed Sumatran dam threatens the rarest ape in the world


Bill Laurance, James Cook University

The plan to build a massive hydropower dam in Sumatra as part of China’s immense Belt and Road Initiative threatens the habitat of the rarest ape in the world, which has only 800 remaining members.

This is merely the beginning of an avalanche of environmental crises and broader social and economic risks that will be provoked by the BRI scheme.




Read more:
How we discovered a new species of orangutan in northern Sumatra


The orangutan’s story began in November 2017, when scientists made a stunning announcement: they had discovered a seventh species of Great Ape, called the Tapanuli Orangutan, in a remote corner of Sumatra, Indonesia.

In an article published in Current Biology today, my colleagues and I show that this ape is perilously close to extinction – and that a Chinese-sponsored megaproject could be the final nail in its coffin.

Forest clearing for the Chinese-funded development has already begun.
Sumatran Orangutan Society

Ambitious but ‘nightmarishly complicated’

The BRI is an ambitious but nightmarishly complicated venture, and far less organised than many believe. The hundreds of road, port, rail, and energy projects will ultimately span some 70 nations across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific region. It will link those nations economically and often geopolitically to China, while catalysing sweeping expansion of land-use and extractive industries, and will have myriad knock-on effects.

Up to 2015, the hundreds of BRI projects were reviewed by the powerful National Development and Reform Commission, which is directly under China’s State Council. Many observers have assumed that the NDRC will help coordinate the projects, but the only real leverage they have is over projects funded by the big Chinese policy banks – the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China – which they directly control.

China’s Belt & Road Initiative will sweep across some 70 nations in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific region.
Mercator Institute for China Studies

Most big projects – many of which are cross-national – will have a mix of funding from various sources and nations, meaning that no single entity will be in charge or ultimately responsible. An informed colleague in China describes this model as “anarchy”.

Tapanuli Orangutan

The dangerous potential of the BRI becomes apparent when one examines the Tapanuli Orangutan. With fewer than 800 individuals, it is one of the rarest animals on Earth. It survives in just a speck of rainforest, less than a tenth the size of Sydney, that is being eroded by illegal deforestation, logging, and poaching.

All of these threats propagate around roads. When a new road appears, the ape usually disappears, along with many other rare species sharing its habitat, such as Hornbills and the endangered Sumatran Tiger.

A Tapanuli Orangutan.
Maxime Aliaga

The most imminent threat to the ape is a US$1.6 billion hydropower project that Sinohydro (China’s state-owned hydroelectric corporation) intends to build with funding from the Bank of China and other Chinese financiers. If the project proceeds as planned, it will flood the heart of the ape’s habitat and crisscross the remainder with many new roads and powerline clearings.

It’s a recipe for ecological Armageddon for one of our closest living relatives. Other major lenders such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank aren’t touching the project, but that isn’t slowing down China’s developers.

What environmental safeguards?

China has produced a small flood of documents describing sustainable lending principles for its banks and broad environmental and social safeguards for the BRI, but I believe many of these documents are mere paper tigers or “greenwashing” designed to quell anxieties.

According to insiders, a heated debate in Beijing right now revolves around eco-safeguards for the BRI. Big corporations (with international ambitions and assets that overseas courts can confiscate) want clear guidelines to minimise their liability. Smaller companies, of which there are many, want the weakest standards possible.

The argument isn’t settled yet, but it’s clear that the Chinese government doesn’t want to exclude its thousands of smaller companies from the potential BRI riches. Most likely, it will do what it has in the past: issue lofty guidelines that a few Chinese companies will attempt to abide by, but that most will ignore.

The Greater Leuser Ecosystem in northern Sumatra is the last place on Earth where Orangutans, Tigers, Elephants and Rhinos still persist together.

Stacked deck

There are three alarming realities about China, of special relevance to the BRI.

First, China’s explosive economic growth has arisen from giving its overseas corporations and financiers enormous freedom. Opportunism, graft and corruption are embedded, and they are unlikely to yield economically, socially or environmentally equitable development for their host nations. I detailed many of these specifics in an article published by Yale University last year.

Second, China is experiencing a perfect storm of trends that ensures the harsher realities of the BRI are not publicly aired or even understood in China. China has a notoriously closed domestic media – ranked near the bottom in press freedom globally – that is intolerant of government criticism.

Beyond this, the BRI is the signature enterprise of President Xi Jinping, who has become the de-facto ruler of China for life. Thanks to President Xi, the BRI is now formally enshrined in the constitution of China’s Communist Party, making it a crime for any Chinese national to criticise the program. This has had an obvious chilling effect on public discourse. Indeed, I have had Chinese colleagues withdraw as coauthors of scientific papers that were even mildly critical of the BRI.

President Xi Jinpeng at the 19th People’s Congress, where the BRI was formally inscribed into China’s national constitution.
Foreign Policy Journal

Third, China is becoming increasingly heavy-handed internationally, willing to overtly bully or covertly pull strings to achieve its objectives. Professor Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University has warned that Australia has become a target for Chinese attempts to stifle criticism.

Remember the ape

It is time for a clarion call for greater caution. While led by China, the BRI will also involve large financial commitments from more than 60 nations that are parties to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, including Australia and many other Western nations.




Read more:
China’s growing footprint on the globe threatens to trample the natural world


The ConversationWe all have a giant stake in the Belt and Road Initiative. It will bring sizeable economic gains for some, but in nearly 40 years of working internationally, I have never seen a program that raises more red flags.

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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How we discovered a new species of orangutan in northern Sumatra



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The new species has a smaller head, and a distinctly ‘cinnamon’ colour compared with other orangutans.
Maxime Aliaga, Author provided

Colin Groves, Australian National University and Anton Nurcahyo, Australian National University

We have discovered a new species of orangutan – the third known species and the first new great ape to be described since the bonobo almost a century ago.

The new species, called the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), has a smaller skull than the existing Bornean and Sumatran orangutans, but has larger canines.

As we and our colleagues report in the journal Current Biology, the new species is represented by an isolated population of fewer than 800 orangutans living at Batang Toru in northern Sumatra, Indonesia.

Orangutan populations in Sumatra and Borneo – the new species’ distribution is shown in yellow.
Curr. Biol.

Read more: The lengthy childhood of endangered orangutans is written in their teeth


The existence of a group of orangutans in this region was first reported back in 1939. But the Batang Toru orangutans were not rediscovered until 1997, and then confirmed in 2003. We set about carrying out further research to see whether this isolated group of orangutans was truly a unique species.

On the basis of genetic evidence, we have concluded that they are indeed distinct from both the other two known species of orangutan: Pongo abelii from further north in Sumatra, and Pongo pygmaeus from Borneo.

The Batang Toru orangutans have a curious mix of features. Mature males have cheek flanges similar to those of Bornean orangutans, but their slender build is more akin to Sumatran orangutans.

The hair colour is more cinnamon than the Bornean species, and the Batang Toru population also makes longer calls than other orangutans.

Making sure

To make completely sure, we needed more accurate comparisons of their body dimensions, or “morphology”. It was not until 2013 that the skeleton of an adult male became available, but since then one of us (Anton) has amassed some 500 skulls of the other two species, collected from 21 institutions, to allow for accurate comparisons.

Analyses have to be conducted at a similar developmental stage on male orangutan skulls, because they continue growing even when adult. Anton found 33 skulls of wild males that were suitable for comparison. Of 39 different measurement characteristics for the Batang Toru skull, 24 of them fall outside of the typical ranges of northern Sumatran and Bornean orangutans.

The new orangutans have smaller heads – but some impressive teeth.
Matthew G Nowak, Author provided

Overall the Batang Toru male has a smaller skull, but bigger canines. Combining the genetic, vocal, and morphological sources of evidence, we have confidently concluded that Batang Toru orangutan population is a newly discovered species – and one whose future is already under threat.

Under threat as soon as they’re discovered.
Maxime Aliaga, Author provided

Despite the heavy exploitation of the surrounding areas (hunting, habitat
alteration and other illegal activities), the communities surrounding the habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan still give us the opportunity to see and census the surviving population. Unfortunately, we believe that the population is fewer than 800 individuals.

Of the habitat itself, no more than 10 square km remains. Future development has been planned for that area, and about 15% of the orangutans’ habitat has non-protected forest status.


Read more: Orangutans need more than your well-meaning clicktivism


The discovery of the third orangutan in the 21st century gives us an understanding that the great apes have more diversity than we know, making it all the more important to conserve these various groups.

The ConversationWithout the strong support of, and participation from, the communities surrounding its habitat, the future of the Tapanuli orangutan will be uncertain. Government, researchers and conservation institutions must make a strong collaborative effort to make sure that this third orangutan will survive long after its discovery.

Colin Groves, Professor of Bioanthropology, Australian National University and Anton Nurcahyo, , Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Mount Agung continues to rumble with warnings the volcano could still erupt


Heather Handley, Macquarie University

It’s more than three weeks since the alert level on Bali’s Mount Agung was raised to its highest level. An eruption was expected imminently and thousands of people were evacuated, but the volcano has still not erupted.

I keep getting emails from people asking me whether they should travel to Bali. I tell them to check the Australian’s government’s Smartraveller website, or contact their airline or tour operator.

They should also keep an eye on the media and any updates from the Indonesian Centre for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation.


Read more: Bali’s Mount Agung threatens to erupt for the first time in more than 50 years


Reports this week from the Indonesian National Disaster Management Authority show a decline in seismic energy recorded near the volcano.

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But does that mean the threat of any eruption is over?

A few false starts

The last major eruption of Mount Agung was in 1963. Since then, there have been two known periods of activity at the volcano site without an ensuing eruption.

In 1989, a few volcanic earthquakes occurred and hot, sulphur-rich gas emissions were observed with no eruption.

Between 2007 to 2009, satellite data showed inflation (swelling) of the volcano at a rate of about 8cm per year, probably caused by the inflow of new magma (molten rock) into the shallow plumbing system. This was followed by deflation for the next two years, again without an eruption.

The current volcanic activity – mainly the number of earthquakes – has not subsided since the alert level was raised to level 4. It continues to fluctuate at high levels, with more than 600 earthquakes a day. This indicates that the threat of an eruption is still high, despite a general decline in overall seismic energy.

This past weekend saw the highest number of daily earthquakes, with more than 1,100 recorded on Saturday October 14.

Graph showing the number of recorded earthquakes per day at Mount Agung volcano. The orange shows shallow volcanic earthquakes, light green is deep volcanic earthquakes and the blue is local tectonic earthquakes.
Centre for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation

The latest statement from the Indonesian Centre for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation was released on October 5. It said earthquake data indicates that pressure is continuing to build up under the volcano due to the increasing magma volume and as magma moves towards the surface.

It’s all about the gas

Magma contains dissolved gases (volatiles) such as water, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide. As magma moves towards the surface, the pressure becomes less and so gas bubbles form, akin to taking the top off a fizzy drink bottle. These gas bubbles take up additional space in the magma and increase the overall pressure of the system.

The amount of gas, and whether or not gas is able to escape from the magma prior to eruption, are major factors that determine how explosive (or not) any volcanic eruption will be.

If the gas bubbles forming in the magma stay within as it ascends beneath Mount Agung, then it could lead to a more explosive eruption. If the gas formed is able to escape, it might depressurise the system enough to erupt less violently or not at all.

White gas plumes, composed mainly of water vapour, have been observed. They have typically reached 50-200m above the crater rim at Mont Agung, and up to 1,500m on October 7. This water vapour is likely due to the hydrologic system heating up in response to the intruding magma at depth.

During the 1963 eruption, Mount Agung produced a significant amount of sulphur-rich gas that caused an estimated global cooling of 0.1-0.4℃. In this current phase of activity, we are yet to see any significant release of sulphur dioxide from the intruding magma.

How big would an eruption be?

It’s not easy to predict how big any eruption at Mount Agung would be. Analysis of volcanic material deposited during previous eruptions over the past 5,000 years suggests that about 25% of them have been of similar or larger size than the 1963 eruption.

On the neighbouring island of Java, the explosive 2010 eruption of Mount Merapi saw more than 400,000 people evacuated and 367 killed. This was preceded by increased earthquake activity over a period of about two months. It was the volcano’s largest eruption since 1872.

The monitoring data and studies of the volcanic rocks produced by the Merapi eruption suggest the relatively fast movement of a large volume of gas-rich magma was the reason for the unusually large eruption.


Read more: Ambae volcano’s crater lakes make it a serious threat to Vanuatu


In 2010, the Indonesian Center of Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation issued timely forecasts of the size of the eruption phases at Merapi, saving an estimated 10,000–20,000 lives.

The waiting game

The Indonesians are keeping a close eye on seismic activity at Mount Agung and the public can watch a live seismogram.

Screenshot of the Mount Agung seismogram showing the large number of earthquakes recorded on October 13 and 14, 2017.
Indonesian Centre for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation

The last two eruptions of Mount Agung in 1843 and 1963 had a Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) of 5, on a scale of 0-8. A 0 would be something like a lava flow on Hawaii that you could generally walk or run from, and 8 would be a supervolcanic eruption like Yellowstone (640,000 years ago and 2.1 million years ago) in the United States or Toba (74,000 years ago) in North Sumatra, Indonesia.

Based on a history of explosive activity at the volcano, the Indonesian authorities are maintaining the current hazard zone of up to 12km from the summit of Mount Agung.

The ConversationIt’s still considered more likely than not that it will erupt, but the question remains: when?

Heather Handley, Associate Professor in Volcanology and Geochemistry, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.